Every Man For Himself And God Against All: A Memoir by Werner Herzog
Published by The Bodley Head

GENIUS or lunatic? The great German film director is renowned for his delivery – that hypnotic voice with its deliberately slow Bavarian cadences, a hangdog face as deadpan as Buster Keaton’s.

Herzog is a tease, a mystifier, a walking koan; he’s the real Riddler. Does this new memoir help clarify his obsessions? Just who is Werner Herzog?

Herzog as Oor Wullie: Young Werner was the kind of kid that got you into trouble. He’s the schoolmate who tells Wee Eck to jump that burn, bullies Fat Bob into walking across a sewage pipe 100 feet up.

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Werner, the loveable scamp with a slingshot who attends A&E departments with a disturbing frequency. You just knew he’d be into hunting for grenades. You guessed he’d be in love with total destruction.

Herzog as Empedocles: Werner, now grown up, lover of volcanoes blowing sky-high. See him on the cover – an elderly man in a silver aluminized fire proximity suit, cradling his hood with pride. At his back, plumes of grey smoke billow from pyroclastic flows. Hear him say it: PIE-ROE-CLASS-TICK.

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Does Werner fantasise about throwing himself inside the crater, like the great Greek philosopher? If he did, would his soul survive, would he be reincarnated? And if so, as what?

Herzog as Captain Scarlet: Werner as indestructible. He knows the volcano won’t get him. He’s survived storms and floods. He’s got through amoebic dysentery, hepatitis, bilharzia and malaria. He’s had head injuries and umpteen broken bones. He’s been shot. He revels in extreme predicaments. His, and others.

Herzog as Alasdair Gray: Purveyor of unlikely stories, mostly. He says he can spot people skilled at milking cows. He stars in a movie about Nessie. He narrowly avoids a beheading at the hands of Peruvian Maoists. He gets bitten by a witch.

Filming Fitzcarraldo, he says a woodsman was chewed by a highly poisonous snake, then the guy picked up a chainsaw “and cut off his foot”.

Aye, right.

He admires that other world-class mythomane, Ryszard Kapuscinski, who regales him with more tales of serpentine terror.

And Werner has a marked tendency to sudden bursts of amusing hyperbole – as with his contention that “the 20th century, in its entirety, was a mistake”. Forget great Scottish discoveries like maternal ultrasound, penicillin, Postcard Records. Just as Werner’s tales begin to sound increasingly far-fetched, we get this … Herzog as Sepp Maier: Or Werner as Andy Goram. Werner the goalie.

Werner in interviews critiques his long-term musical collaborator, Florian Fricke from the band Popol Vuh. He says Fricke was “really mean”, a hard man who looked like an angel but who would be vicious on the park and play “really foul … in a surreptitious way that the ref couldn’t see”. As with Wim Wenders, Herzog knows the goalkeeper’s fear of the penalty. You sense he sees the sublime in goalkeeping, which leads us to … HERZOG as Caspar David Friedrich: Visuals as shared forte. Werner says he has a “deep aversion to navel-gazing” – an antipathy to introversion – but we see many of the heroes in his movies staring out in awe at the natural world, as with the great painter’s canvases.

We watch their backs – the Rückenfigur – as they contemplate mute mountain ranges, exploding craters, endless ice flows. The sublime, where man meets landscape in a mystical union. Where what we are is what we see. And so, lastly: Herzog as “Peeping Tom” Mark in Michael Powell’s 1960 movie: Werner likes looking. He delights in describing terrible mishaps.

We see dangling intestines and “a foot-long razor-sharp bamboo point” that juts from a man’s throat. He enjoys filming madmen, like the deranged actor Klaus Kinski. Werner is no Nazi, but he’s fascinated by true believers, those good soldiers imbued with qualities like “loyalty, duty, courage”. The Japanese soldiers who didn’t surrender, those never-say-die types stuck in the jungle. He admits that “the culture of complaint” disgusts him.

Werner in summary: Lunatic or genius? Every Man For Himself And God Against All reveals he’s a bit of both. He’s Billy Connolly’s Rambling Man gone rogue. He’s a crazed Indiana Jones gleefully rampaging across that temple of doom we call Earth.

But one day God is gonna have him too.